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Justice,not apology

The middle class seems to think saying sorry is enough to move on from gross violations.

Written by Javed Anand | Published: September 28, 2013 3:33:31 am

The middle class seems to think saying sorry is enough to move on from gross violations.

Until now,the democratic world had known only two ways of dealing with mass crimes,war crimes,crimes against humanity and genocide. It now appears that sections of the media and intelligentsia in India have discovered a third way.

The first is founded on the principle of justice: trial of the accused and punishment to the guilty; even the worst perpetrators are entitled to a fair trial. Some refer to this as the “Nuremberg method” — recall the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials of top Nazis.

At the end of Apartheid in 1994,South Africa chose to take a different approach,addressing gross instances of human rights violations through a Truth and Reconciliation process. As different from the principles of retributive justice (focus on deterrent punishment) and rehabilitative justice (aimed at reforming the criminal),the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) sought to base itself on the principle of “restorative justice” (premised on equal concern for the victim and the offender,placing emphasis on the harm done to persons and social relationships rather than on the rule of law). Both victims of atrocities and its perpetrators were invited to testify before the TRC. The presumption was that the act of sincere “truth-telling” by both sides,followed by adequate reparation and rehabilitation of victims,amnesty against civil or criminal prosecution to the offenders in select cases,will help heal wounds,bring closure. Some call this the “TRC method”.

The Nuremberg method is based on a principle that democracies are familiar with. For the rule of law to prevail,criminals must be tried as prescribed by law and those found guilty must be punished. The jury is still out on the TRC method. A 1998 survey of several hundred victims of human rights abuse during Apartheid,conducted by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation,found that most victims believed the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation and that,without justice,there could be no reconciliation.

Whatever the merits of the TRC approach,the fact remains that,until now,constitutional democracies have known only these two ways of dealing with human rights violations on a mass scale. To these,the Indian middle class now seems to be proposing an altogether new third option. Call it the “apology principle”. For the offender,the apology route is the most attractive. Forget court trials,forget truth-telling,forget reparation or rehabilitation to restore dignity and rebuild the broken lives of victims. Just say sorry and “move on”.

It may first be noted that the proposed apology principle is not about the wrongs of the distant past or wounds of history. It’s about gross violations committed here and now. Second,this say-sorry option is only for state actors accused of complicity in,or sponsorship of,mass crimes such as the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi (1984) or of Muslims in Gujarat (2002). No one ever suggested,for example,that those accused of the gruesome gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012 be offered the say-sorry route.

Third,this amnesty-come-cheap for state actors is only for mass crimes: one terrible railway accident and we all demand that the railway minister be sacked. This is not how it always was. For whatever it was worth,as Shekhar Gupta pointed out in his column,‘Pot’s blacker than the kettle’ (IE,April 6,2002),“even as the riots were dying out on November 3 (Mrs Gandhi was assassinated on October 30,1984) Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor,P.G. Gavai,was fired”; nine days later,the city’s police commissioner,Subhash Tandon,was replaced. Within a month of the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai,then Maharashtra chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik was sacked.

Token measures,no doubt. But evidently,we no longer need even such elementary accountability from our political masters. The only relevant question today is whether Gujarat’s chief minister,and now the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP,Narendra Modi,has or hasn’t expressed regret for 2002. Some claim that he already did in 2004 and,if anything,it is Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who has yet to apologise for the anti-Sikh carnage that took place while her husband Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister.

“The only civilised alternative to (the victims’) desire for revenge is to render justice,” the Italian legal luminary Antonio Cassese had pleaded during the trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the new civilisational paradigm that many among us are so earnestly postulating not only renders justice,truth,reparation and rehabilitation redundant,it also “invisibilises” the victims of heinous crimes. Closure,what’s that? Do we care?

The writer is general secretary,Muslims for Secular Democracy,and co-editor,‘Communalism Combat’

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